This week the subject of work came up while I chatted with a friend. We traded a few stories about the things we loved about what we do and then she became uncharacteristically quiet.
"Your job must be really hard," she whispered. "Why? How can you do this?"
These questions happen in nearly every conversation about what I do. Death is culturally taboo for most Americans. It feels weird and perhaps naughty to talk about it.
It's difficult to explain without many long stories, so I'll give you the abridged version. Adversity calls me. Mortality practically has a finger in each of my nostrils and leads me around. I am compelled to do this. It's hard. Some days I feel like I just can't . . . it's too much.
Then I show up and see the people who are living with this new reality. It doesn't matter if it's illness, death, or a significant change in capability . . . it requires the creation of a new normal. For these families, life is forever changed.
Whatever I experience as the companion during these times I can manage. I know that because I need to do this for these families. This intimacy with mortality, whether it's sudden or gradual, is a state that leads to the need to reflect and connect. Through photography I can give these families a little of both.
Death comes for each of us. It comes to us all. In avoiding the topic or seeking endless euphemisms we cheat ourselves the opportunity to really get to know mortality. It doesn't make sense to deny it. How much better would the end of life be for someone who was not afraid? If we could learn to make peace with that sooner in our lives, I believe it would change not only how we prepare for the deaths of our loved ones and ourselves, but how we live.
Documenting someone's last breaths is an incredible honor (and a tremendous amount of pressure). Observing the customs and tradition of many cultures in caring for their sick, dying, and dead and in celebrating and mourning their losses is eye-opening. I've experienced so many amazing things of which I was previously ignorant.
With mortality a part of my daily life, I connect more closely with how I want to live my life. Being with death strengthens my resolve to live. When my body is no longer able to support my adventures here, I will go. Until then, I am living. I know death will come, and when it does I expect it will be much like old friends reuniting.
Last year I donated more than two feet of hair to Pantene's Beautiful Lengths. This is a sacrifice for me (and my husband) every time because there is so much about short hair that just doesn't feel right. My hair can look quite a bit different in five months of growing and trimming, and this weekend it was time to update my headshots so people recognize me.
I am a deeply compassionate and empathetic person. Truly seeing people is one of the things that comes naturally to me and I believe it saturates my photography.
I am also known for my enormous laugh and wry sense of humor. It's hard to represent all of these things in a single photograph.
For a long time I've carried the expectation that in order to serve families living with grief I needed to be . . . someone a little different from myself. That part of me who is joyful was getting stuffed away by the part of me who is nurturing and compassionate. The big-hearted, loud version was told to shush by the big-hearted, quiet version.
Today, they shake hands. They will be working together from now on.
This won't change my behavior. My work is to serve families as they need me. I match the energy and the vitality they need to experience in someone, and I am really good at doing that.
This does change the way I see myself, and in this view I feel like I can breathe. I feel like I can be authentically me without apology. I am goofy. I'm also pretty polished about it. I know that in order to be the most connected I can be with my client families, I need to feel that way about myself.
So here I am.
In color, because that's how you'll see me in person. With zero retouching, because that's how you'll see me in person.
In fact, I can see I have a little something stuck on one of my teeth right at the gum line.
I'm gaining more wrinkles by the moment. These are lines of a life well lived. I think it's fantastic that my smile lines from my eyes and mouth overlap at my cheeks because my smiles are so big and so frequent. I am grateful for my grey hair, which is one more sign that I have the privilege of aging and with people I love.
This is a photograph of someone who lives, laughs, loves, cries, and struggles. This is someone who sees beauty in life, until the very last breath.
This is someone who sees you and your family in the best ways. This is someone with whom you can celebrate life and love. I look forward to meeting you and sharing in your story.
In 2016 I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to share my work through interviews. Iconic images came up in nearly every conversation.
"What was your favorite moment this year?"
"Is there a picture that has stuck with you long after you took it?"
To honor 2016 I thought I'd share my 2016 Image of the Year, and I'll also publish a small report of the number and types of shoots I did this year. People are so curious about what grief photography looks like, and because I do not share many images online I have limited opportunities to covey what it's really like.
For me, grief is like this.
It feels like too much.
This boy is three years old. You can see he's in the hospital. At this moment, he's been in the hospital for a few days. He doesn't yet have a diagnosis. He is in excruciating and sporadic pain that morphine doesn't help.
He was hardly able to rest because there was no position that was comfortable. His mother was with him during his entire stay, which was ten days long. She snuggled with him in his bed, read books with him, sang songs, and played with cars. She explained each of the procedures he would have for diagnosis and evaluation. All of them hurt and added to his pain.
This is a boy who had had enough. In this moment I saw that.
I saw how his fingernails were holding on to dirt that he played in just a few days prior. I saw him writhe in bed, even while sleeping, because the pain was too great. I saw a little boy who was confined to a bed and wired for evaluation who ordinarily would be outside running and jumping.
This is my son. Over the summer he was in the hospital. This image breaks me a little each time I see it.
That is what photography is meant to do. This picture I took on my humble iPhone camera tells a story in a way words cannot. It connects me with how I felt over those days in July. It renews my gratitude for his health. It evokes emotions I can hardly describe.
This is why I do this work. I have lived these pictures. While I cannot understand every circumstance I experience through the eyes of my client families, I can have heart for them because I can relate to the grief, anxiety, uncertainty, pain, anger, sorrow, and helplessness.
I see you. I want to help you see yourself and your family.
In my role as a NICU photographer I photograph many moments I want to share. I hear many stories I want to share. Alas, they are not my moments and not my stories. I am also bound by contract with the hospital not to share pictures or identifying information. Sometimes, though, there is a moment or a family that really hits me. While I cannot share images the way other photographers do, I can tell you about my experience.
This is for the young NICU father I met last week.
I have this picture of you gently caressing your tiny daughter's foot through her incubator. Every bit of your right arm and hand that is visible in this picture is covered with ink. It's a beautiful juxtaposition of toughness and gentleness.
I have other pictures of you holding your daughter, just barely five pounds. She looks especially small in your arms. Your face is so soft and tender. It looks as though your heart lives outside your body in this tiny person.
I know from spending time with you that you are tender and compassionate. I saw that when you were with your daughter and her mother. I saw you surrender to both of them in this experience. I saw you allow yourself to be vulnerable. With a stranger (me) in the room.
I also noticed that you look like a total badass.
You have the appearance of the kind of person popular entertainment suggests is not worth of trust. I don't know anything about you beyond what I saw in the NICU during the short time we were together. From that I can say that I've seen the best in humanity. You were completely connected to your daughter. You were kind to and supportive of her mother. With me you were gracious and grateful.
Thank you for having the courage to show your true colors. Your little girl is fortunate to have you in her life. I know you will be behind her in every challenge she faces.
The expenses of final arrangements for a loved one are often overwhelming, and this is almost always the case for parents who bury a child. Children's graves are the ones I most often visit to photograph for parents, and often these resting places are unmarked in conventional ways.
We think of a burial as something that involves a headstone or marker that recognizes and honors the person's lifetime, often with some personalization such as a quote or a picture. These stones range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. After paying basic burial costs (and especially when death punctuates a long illness), stones become financially out-of-reach.
This is heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking for anyone who grieves. In the community of bereaved parents, there is a colorful, vibrant, and unique solution.
Resourceful parents without the financial means to provide a stone make grief homes for their children in other ways. This young girl's family embraced her love of horses and created a stable for her. A pink stable. The stable has a modest fence, a beautiful and bountiful garden in the back, and Anna (from Frozen) lovingly tends to the four horses.
She had asked her father for a pony for years, and he was seriously considering making that happen for her when she received her cancer diagnosis. She was ten years old. He knew she wasn't physically able to ride between the rigors of treatment and the ravages of cancer. He began to promise her the pony she asked for, and shortly after her burial he delivered.
She has no stone. While I look at her place and wish she had a beautiful granite marker that will help to tell her story for generations, I understand and admire her family's alternative. This is beautiful, and this says so much more about who she is than any stone could.
Many nonprofits exist to help parents in this circumstance and offer financial assistance for final arrangements. Little Love Foundation, which assists parents who have suffered the loss of a baby, put together a fantastic online reference of resources. Help is available. And sometimes the alternative can be more comforting in the short-term.
There isn't an easy time of year to be hit with a wave of grief and outside of triggering events like birthdays and anniversaries it's impossible to predict when the next wave will hit. The holiday season is a challenge for most of the families I meet. It's full of good cheer, good will, and love for family and friends . . . and when someone you love isn't there to share that with you it can feel exactly the opposite.
I asked Sairey Luterman, a Certified Thanatologist with a grief counseling practice in Massachusetts, a few questions about how to grieve through the holidays. She is a thoughtful and compassionate professional who encourages people living with grief to honor themselves during this new way of being. I share her wisdom with you in the hopes it can bring you or someone you love a smidgen more comfort this holiday season.
How do we include meaningful traditions in our family's celebrations when a key person is no longer here? Do we start new traditions? Do we keep the old ones and struggle through them?
After a loss, holidays can take on a looming and threatening nature for a family trying to navigate traditions, memories, and feelings. One of the biggest gifts a grieving person can give themselves is to anticipate a holiday and try to plan for it, well in advance of the actual holiday. What might feel good? What needs to be tossed? Work with your loved ones to develop a plan and ideas for how the holiday time might be best and most comfortably spent. Then, don't feel like those ideas and plans are a lock step formulation. Be willing to switch gears int he middle if something that initially felt comfortable and wonderful isn't working. Surround yourself with family members and friends willing to support and be flexible with you at this time. Some folk are able to work with the old traditions and simply call out and remember and perhaps symbolically include their dead loved one, while other may decide to radically depart from the old ways and take a cruise, go on a hike, or observe a holiday in a way that is entirely different than what they may have done previously. Some find a more comfortable middle ground.
In my experience, this can be about trial and error, and after a few holidays have been approached and celebrated, what may or may not work for a family will begin to emerge. Be thoughtful, refine, adapt, and change as much as you need to, and be kind to yourself.
When does it get easier?
Loss is particular and individual - there is no algorithm for this. Loss is hard and it must be continuously acknowledged. A person who has had a loss is deserving of big doses of love and support. Having good support in place and learning what that support looks like for yourself and your loved ones can help make traveling the road a little easier. There can be an enormous amount of comfort in being with individuals who have also suffered a similar loss, as in a bereavement or loss group, or if that isn't comfortable, one-on-one support may help someone who is really struggling. Seek help and support and be as kind to yourself as you would to someone else who has suffered a loss.
How do I politely decline invitations when I just want to be left alone?
There is a thread of educating others that seems to run through the experience of enduring the loss of a loved one. It is a role one can choose to take on, or not. I believe a polite and simple, "I appreciate the invite, but I am not up to it right now," should suffice. If you feel uncomfortable being that succinct, you could say, "When I feel more up to it, I will be sure to let you know," as it will generally stop the invitee from insisting. There is a lot of clumsiness in what is offered to us in the wake of loss, and a lot of good, too. Listening carefully to your own internal signals and defending the space to grieve and exist the way you need to is your right and a profound need that must be honored. It is okay to defend that space for yourself. If you are not leaving the house for long periods of time or the person making an inquiry or request of you is someone quite close and that you particularly trust, you may ask them, "Why the insistence?" Remember that sometimes our loved ones can feel apprehensive and want to help, but they may also see something distressing in your behavior that is worth listening to - for instance, prolonged withdrawal from family and friends may mean you do need more support, perhaps from a professional.
I feel horrible for wanting to forget about this loss until the holidays are over so I can enjoy the holidays. Does that make me a terrible person?
Taking time to reevaluate and explore how holidays are spent (and enjoyed) in the wake of loss is an important self-care activity. There is a lot of judgment about how we choose to grieve and do things sometimes when we have had a loved one die. If it is more comfortable to proceed with the holiday "the old way" then it should be so - and not having different traditions, memorializing our loved one, and calling them out during this time are absolutely acceptable. What matters in the new normal is that the holiday feels as you and your loved ones desire and need it to be.
I especially like how Sairey mentioned the clumsiness of grief. It is awkward. It is both delicate and tough, and that seems to be so much of the clumsiness of it. In being honest with ourselves about how we feel and how we'd like to spend our time, we can politely and firmly help to set the expectations of others. As Sairey said, defend the space you need to grieve.
Sairey works with clients in and around Lexington, MA, and works with clients via the phone/Skype all over the country. She provides excellent resources online through her site and social media accounts. Her addresses are below if you like to follow her.
May the holidays bring you moments of peace between the waves of grief this year.
When I visit graves and niches to photograph them at the request of families, I often bring my assistant. He's spent more hours in cemeteries and memorial parks than most adults, and yet he's three years old.
My son came with me today as I documented a new marker for a young woman. She has a place that reminded me of a backyard, under the cover of a large tree with a small bench for long chats. An angel stands nearby with a bowl of flowers.
In this particular memorial park, the children's area is nearby. I visit the little ones when my schedule is flexible. I think they call me to them. I find myself with the children in every cemetery I visit, even if it's my first time and I have little idea of the layout.
My son and I walked through to talk to the children. Earlier in the week I photographed an infant's funeral and visited the little boy in his new place. I visited with the other children I've come to know and introduced myself to others. I tell my son what I know about these children in ways that make sense to him. He gives me lots of hugs.
We walked by a little boy's space who had a car engraved on his marker. A kindred spirit for my son! I pointed his out to him and told him this was another little boy who really liked cars. My son squatted down and admired the granite.
"Mommy, may I play with him?" he asked.
I didn't know what to say. I didn't know exactly what he meant, so I asked him to explain.
"I have cars in your truck, Mommy. I can share and we can play."
And so we walked together back to my truck. He stuffed his pockets with vehicles and carried a few more in his hands. On the way back to the boy's marker, he shouted, "I'm coming! I have cars!"
He laid in the grass and played with his new friend while I wandered the grounds, meeting new people and imagining stories. I'm sure he had stories of his own to tell. He chatted nearly the entire time of his visit. I'm not sure what he saw or felt.
When it was time to go, he packed up his cars and said goodbye to his friend. I believe we'll be back to visit and play again.
The days babies come are supposed to be the happiest days. For some families, they are also the most crushing.
There are families who say hello and goodbye in the same day, and sometimes in the same breath. The grief is heavy. It feels too heavy to carry. These are families that should be soaking in those beautiful sleepy newborn days, learning how to interpret cries, feeding at all hours, and changing lots of diapers.
These are not families that should be visiting their children's graves.
Every time I photograph a child's funeral I feel like raw meat. Just beaten. I cannot wrap my brain around how devastating this loss is for parents, grandparents, and siblings. The sight of a coffin that is so small . . . it's heartbreaking.
The person who designed this balloon meant for it to be seen in a hospital or at home. Instead it's marking the new resting place of a little boy who is very much loved.
Comparison in any kind of grief is meaningless and yet there is something different about pregnancy and infant loss.
Most deaths people morn are of loved ones whom they've known for years. Parents who lose a pregnancy haven't had the opportunity to meet their baby. Parents who lose an infant have not had the opportunity to see who their baby will become. It's loss upon loss. It's a lifetime of missed milestones.
First smile. Finding toes. Laughing. Sitting up. Solid food. Crawling. Clapping. Standing. Cruising. Dancing. Walking. Talking.
For these parents there are no birthdays. There isn't a first day of school. There isn't a best friend who is over so much she's one of the family. There are no favorite colors. There are no drawings, school plays, music recitals, or sports. No changes that come with puberty. No driver's license. No complaints about how hard algebra is and how little it will be used in "real life." No graduation. No moving out. There is no wedding. There are no grandchildren.
Every anniversary, every holiday, every birthday . . . they hurt in a new way. Just as the scab forms over the last missed milestone, grief rips it off and exposes the raw tissue beneath that doesn't have the opportunity to heal.
This isn't better or worse. It's not harder or easier. It's different.
The Calvary Cemetery in Lakewood, WA, has a monument to honor the unborn. This isn't meant to start a discussion about when life begins - it's meant to start a discussion about the importance of having a safe space and supportive environment to be with this grief. The monument in this Catholic cemetery includes a central marker, twin angels, and a contemplation bench. It's a beautiful, quiet space.
October 15 of each year is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. I will light a candle for the families I have witnessed this year who are without their babies.
Based on the number of young children I see at funerals and memorial services, many people feel that they are not fit to witness these ceremonies. I understand. They are loud. They wiggle and fidget. They ask a lot of questions.
They say things other people would not say. Things about farts, for example. I know this from personal experience.
I recently attended a viewing and graveside service for my grandfather and my son (aka The Boy), who is three, came with me. We traveled for four hours by car (including the break at the rest stop to run around and squeal). The first stop we made was at the funeral home. With just 25 minutes before the end of viewing, I didn't have the time to take him somewhere to run out the crazies first. I felt horrible for the long ride and then a visit to a place that prized quiet conversations and decorum.
I reached my hand out for his, which was a bit sticky from very soft snickerdoodle cookies. We walked inside and he remarked about how it was such a beautiful home. The funeral director smiled and kindly showed us to my grandfather.
My grandfather's sister and two members of her family were visiting. I put down my camera bag and purse and crouched in the corner nearest the doorway with my son. I explained how we would see many sad people. I told him we were there to visit with and say goodbye to my grandfather. He nodded quietly. He climbed into a rocking chair covered with a quilt and snuggled, his feet just barely reaching the edge of the seat.
Then it happened.
RRRRRRRRRRRPFFFFFFFFT RRRRRRRPT RRRRRRRPT
Someone farted. I knew it wasn't us by the location of the sound. I turned to look at The Boy. His eyes were wide and he sat at full attention.
"Mommy! Mommy, I heard something!" he exclaimed with urgency.
"Oh," I replied as casually as I possibly could. "What did you hear?"
Why did I ask that question? How could I make this less of a scene? I thought about the most prudent approach to guiding him through this moment.
"It was loud! It was loud and bumpy!" His stage whisper seemed like it was loud enough to be heard down the hall and in the entry. I was caught between chuckling and wanting to melt into the floor and disappear.
This is why people do not bring children to funerals and memorials. Heavy sigh.
I knelt before him and snuggled him quietly, my back turned to the others in the room. I heard the throat-clearing and brief shifting of positions of the other people in the room. As my body settled into his, I realized how grateful I was for his company and his perspective. I was thankful to have someone there with me, not as a distraction, but as a grounding agent. He pulls me down in the best ways to make sure I am connected. He shows me what things are important and what things don't matter much in the long-term.
When the other mourners left shortly afterward, we had the space to ourselves. I approached my grandfather, who looked just right. He was wearing a blue, button-down shirt and although he had on a cardigan over it I'm pretty sure it had short sleeves. I photographed a few details in the room, because that's what I do. It was a way to help me work through the feelings.
The stage whisper started again.
"Mommy! Stop looking at your grandfather! He's resting."
I smiled. When my eyes crinkled I felt tears well for the first time. This little boy was doing everything he could do to respectfully participate and connect. At three he doesn't understand the concept of death and that doesn't matter. He came for me, and he came for other members of our family who appreciated his joyful chaos and expertise in full-body hugging.
There were other funny moments of the day. This one I will remember for the rest of my days. This one I will tell his future spouse, should he decide to marry. This one I will tell his children.
Parents aren't sure how their children will behave during what is usually a solemn occasion and I understand that reasoning in leaving them behind. I also understand and appreciate that the best way to learn about the world, learn about expectations, and practice what to do is to actually do things. I encourage parents to bring children to services when their children are interested in participating. There may be crying, shouting, laughing, or other distracting behavior. I think that's okay. These kids aren't intending to disrespect the family or the dependent - they're merely experimenting with behavior to find the right place to settle. Adults can help them do that.
And in some cases, they bring a smile or laugh that is needed. When we come together to honor and remember a life, we remember the joy, too. In that little boy of mine is a piece of my grandfather. For that and so many other things, I am grateful.
I see a lot of incredible moments of the human experience while being with families in love and grief. From each family I learn, and those lessons and points to ponder are what I wish to share with you here.